US-backed Syrian fighters inch closer to IS 'capital'

BEIRUT (AP) — U.S.-backed fighters captured a village in northern Syria Saturday from members of the Islamic State group, bringing them closer to cutting a road linking two major IS-held cities in the country and closing in on the extremists' de facto capital.

The push came as Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim warned that if the predominantly Kurdish force eventually entered the city of Raqqa it will have negative effects on the relations between Ankara and Washington.

The Kurdish-led Syria Democratic Forces has been on the offensive toward the city of Raqqa since November. Still, once they approach the city the battle is expected to be bloody and long since the extremists have set up fortifications and have thousands of battle-hardened fighters.

Iraqi forces have been trying to capture Mosul since October and the extremists still hold the western half of the city.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the SDF said Saturday that the predominantly-Kurdish force captured the village of Jawees.

The Observatory said SDF fighters are getting close to cutting the road that the extremists use to travel between Raqqa and the eastern city of Deir el-Zour.

SDF fighters now control most of the villages and towns north of Raqqa and are gaining ground in eastern areas. The loss of Raqqa would be a major blow to the extremists since it was one of the first cities they fully controlled before declaring a caliphate in June 2014 in large parts of Syria and Iraq.

Yildirim was quoted by the state-run Anadolu new agency while on a flight in Germany as saying that Turkey has made an offer regarding "saving Raqqa" from IS, adding that it will not be correct to move in with Kurdish fighters.

In August, Turkish troops rolled over the border to help Syrian opposition forces battle IS and halt the advance of U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters. But Turkey has become bogged down in a grueling battle over the town of al-Bab, one of the few remaining IS strongholds in northern Syria.

Turkey views the main Kurdish force known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG, as a terrorist organization because of their links to Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. It accuses the group of involvement in a series a bomb attacks in Turkey carried out by Kurdish militants — charges the YPG rejects. The YPG is major element of the SDF.

The U.S. has embedded 300 special forces troops with the SDF. The White House says they are advisers. French special forces are also embedded with the group.

"We have said that a terror organization cannot be used against another terror organization," Yildirim said. "That doesn't work in friendship. I think the new U.S. administration will take this evaluation into consideration."

The Turkish prime minister said he told German Chancellor Angela Merkel that Germany can be included in the Raqqa operation. He said that the operation can be carried out by Turkish and U.S. troops along with Syrian opposition fighters "them in the front, us in the back."

"There will be a military presence from the U.S. and Turkey. We will not directly join the operation; we will give tactical support, if we agree in principle. Possibilities and capacities are being evaluated," Yildirim said.

Last week, the top U.S. commander for the counter-IS campaign in Iraq and Syria, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, said forces leading the fights for Raqqa and the northern Iraqi city of Mosul should prevail within the next six months.

Regarding the U.S. entering Raqqa with the YPG, Yildirim said: "We are hoping they will not make such a decision. If they do, it would be a serious problem in relations with the U.S."


Associated Press writer Zeynep Bilginsoy in Istanbul contributed to this report.